50 years of the life aquatic
They started with no boats, no cylinders and woolly diving gear. Half a century on, the Irish Underwater Council is coming up for air
Underwater adventures: the first president of Comhairle Fo-Thuinn, Shane O’Connor, and his wife, Betty, about to go diving at Carraroe, Co Galway, around 1959
Underwater adventures: Mick Moriarty and Capt Mick McDonough preparing to go spearfishing at Greystones, Co Wicklow, in 1958
Underwater adventures: Jimmy Flynn of CSAC in 1966
Underwater adventures: diving at the Blue Pool, near Doonbeg, Co Clare. Photograph: Tony Hanrahan
Underwater adventures: diving with the Doolin dolphin. Photograph: Martin Kiely
In the gear bag: three or four pullovers, shirts and Army long johns. From the shoreline: swim out, invert and hold your breath.
When Mick Moriarty took up diving in Ireland, more than half a century ago, the best equipment and approach, he says, were what you had in your head.
“I’ve caught fish with a spear while holding my breath, and it certainly wasn’t off some island in the Pacific,” says Moriarty, a former Army officer. “When I began we had no such thing as access to rigid inflatable boats, never mind a car each to get there. We would just launch ourselves from the shore or rocks, wearing big lumpy woollen clothing, to give us the illusion of being warmer,” he says.
“But of course we weren’t, and it was awkward, and you were far worse off when you got out than if you had nothing on at all. We would get all the way down to 10m, or 35ft, for a few minutes, and it was wonderful, but it was very much a mental thing.”
Moriarty is a founder member of Comhairle Fo-Thuinn, the Irish Underwater Council, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. A fellow pioneer, Ronnie Hurley, now 80 and still active, clearly remembers his first dive with Moriarty, “in a lovely rocky cove” off Spanish Point in Co Clare.
Hurley recalls wearing Moriarty’s latex drysuit and being shown how to use twin corrugated-rubber breathing hoses. It was awkward, for the hoses would fill with water if the mouthpiece came out, Hurley remembers in an account written for Limerick Sub Aqua Club. There was no such thing as a nonreturn valve, so “your next breath would then be a fill of water instead of air”.
“The trick was to first invert your head to the left, and blow out all the water with all the air that you had left in your lungs,” Hurley recalls. Then a rope was tied to his wrist, and he was “launched into the deep blue yonder”. The solo dive “lasted all of 10 glorious minutes, to something like 10m”, he says.
So ingrained is the buddy system of pairing up for safety in modern sports diving that the adventures of Moriarty, Hurley and others may seem beyond daft now, they admit.
Moriarty has described his own first undersea experiences in his autobiography, Submerged, which charts the evolution of diving before, during and after the second World War, and the revolution in the sport after a French gas company engineer, Émile Gagnan, was asked by the French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, who was a captain in the French navy at the time, if he could develop a better breathing device.